2019

Ketchup (25 Aug 19)

I have just returned from a fortnight’s holiday in a rented house on the Isle of Lewis. There is not much to do on Lewis, and it was noticeable that the televisions in rental properties there are generally bigger and more capable than in those in the rest of Britain. As is usual these days, there was a selection of DVDs in the living room, and these included one of my favourite musicals.

 

On the whole I am not much given to musicals, but my all-time top-20 list of films might well include a couple. Cabaret is one I am not too embarrassed about, but the other, Meet Me in St. Louis, is more of a secret pleasure. It is an apparently simple story of the Smiths, an American family looking forward to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair and dealing with the news that they might have to move to New York before it opens. Nancy Astor and Leon Ames play the parents of a son and four daughters, while the film serves as a vehicle for Judy Garland, as daughter number two, and child star Margaret O’Brien, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the youngest girl. The male leads are fairly weak; there is virtually no plot; and the score lacks the driving vigour of the Richard Rodgers musicals of the same era, delivering just two instantly-recognisable hits in The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.

 

For all its faults, there is a coherence to Meet Me in St. Louis that sees off many a better production. The American public thought so too, for the film grossed around $7 million on its original release. This might seem like lunch money for Chris Hemsworth or Bradley Cooper today, but at the time it was more than for any film made by MGM in the previous 20 years, with the one exception of its runaway success, Gone with The Wind.

 

Meet Me in St. Louis premiered in St. Louis in November 1944 and was being distributed across the States by the following January. The year that preceded it was perhaps America’s toughest in World War II. Its troops had fought their way up Italy through four battles at Anzio and the subsequent occupation of Rome, finishing high on the east coast beyond Rimini and pushing into southern France. They had taken part in the largest amphibious operation ever staged, the D-Day landings, had broken out of Normandy to take Paris and the Channel ports, and were poised for weeks of the grimmest fighting in the Ardennes. In the Pacific, US forces had hopped from island to island, retaking the Marshall Islands, Guam, and the rest of the Marianas, and were liberating the Philippines. With over a million casualties in total, the US suffered more combat losses in the Second World War than they had in any war before or since and, although it is hard to get figures for individual years,1944 was almost certainly the most expensive. With the Germans preparing to make their final stand on home territory, the Red Army massing equivocally behind them, and the Japanese threatening to defend every inch of their own islands, it seemed quite likely that 1945 would be even worse.

 

The subtext of Meet Me in St. Louis is not hard to read. It is summarised near the end of the film by Mr. Smith, after he announces that he won’t be moving the family to New York after all: “New York hasn't got a copyright on opportunity. St. Louis is headed for a boom that'll make your head swim. This is a great town. You don't appreciate it because it's right here under your noses. The grass is always greener in somebody else's yard.” Even more succinctly, the smallest girl says, “Wasn’t I lucky to be born in my favorite city?”  It’s a call for national unity. Nowhere in the States is better than anywhere else. We’re all fighting for the same thing.

 

I have long maintained that all American films carry the same message: family is best, and this is certainly pushed to near-saccharine proportions in Meet Me in St. Louis. Of course, the other great archetype that Hollywood films explore is that of the rugged individualist. Very often these two ideas are treated as polar opposites, as in some classic westerns, where the hero struggles to integrate with the ordinary society he encounters (e.g. High Noon and The Tin Star, and may end up heading into the sunset as lonely and cynical as he came (e.g. Shane and High Plains Drifter). In Meet Me in St. Louis, the twin archetypes of family and individualism are not set at odds, but are allowed to lap against each other as comfortable cross-currents. Nowhere is this clearer than in piece of a domestic business that otherwise adds little to the overall plot.

 

In the first proper scene of the film, Mrs Smith and the family maid, Katie, are making ketchup. Mrs Smith thinks it’s perfect, bearing in mind that her husband likes it quite sweet, but Katie finds it too sweet. The eldest son comes in and picks up the spoon without invitation. He thinks it isn’t spicy enough. When Judy Garland’s character arrives, she too makes automatically for the pot. With a doubtful look at her mother, she queries, “Too sour?” A little later it is Grandpa’s turn: “Too thin”, he says. We then see it poured into bottles, ready for the pantry. It is their ketchup, and they all have a strong sense of ownership about it, but there is room for them each to have an opinion. We can sense from outside something they must feel for themselves: the fact that each of their separate opinions pulls in a different direction makes it just about right for them all. It is a perfect model of individual action within a collective purpose. How important was that in 1944 and 1945, when young men from all over a widely disparate nation were asked to make personal sacrifice in a common cause?

 

It is, of course, in the nature of us British to go on and on about the Second World War. It really was our finest hour, and nothing that has happened since suggests we will change that very soon. It should be a matter of concern to all of us that far from valuing individual action within a collective purpose – something we did then every bit as well as the Americans – British energies have now sunk to a level of strident tribalism in support of contradictory purposes. It is worth reading Nick Duffell, a British psychotherapist and writer who has launched blistering attacks on British social organisation and, most particularly, the boarding school system that supports its executive layers. His book, (Wounded Leaders:  British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion – a Psychohistory is a pleasing and insightful rant which ranges widely and even links the English Reformation with the habitual underperformance of the England football team. In Chapter 8 he talks about how the “disidentified and disowned, the loathed and feared” have come back “to attack the rational world of the middle classes”. He says this is “simply a return to form after some years of extraordinary national unity produced by the Second World War.”

 

It is quite a thought. We are not so much going to hell in a handcart as going back to hell in a handcart. Hell doesn’t look the same in 2019 as it did in the early years of the twentieth century, or the nineteenth, but it is still hell. We just haven’t put the work in. For decades now we have coasted to the comforting strains of the Dam Buster March and the Dad’s Army theme tune, but the wounds inherent in the highly stratified and unequal society we have had for centuries have re-emerged. We have had the chance to do something different but we have failed to take it.